The Kings of Summer (2013)
95 min., rated R.
The debut of first-time director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and first-time screenwriter Chris Galletta, "The Kings of Summer" is sort of a He-Man Woman Haters Club version of Wes Anderson's "Moonrise Kingdom." As roughly the two-hundredth entry in the subgenre of "that one summer" coming-of-agers, the film travels through some pretty familiar turf about youthful nostalgia but goes down easy like a laid-back, directionless summer day with a scrappy, independently made quality.
15-year-old outsider Joe Toy (Nick Robinson) and his tough, sarcastic father Frank (Nick Offerman) constantly ruffle each other's feathers ever since Mom died. Frank tries to date, but Joe makes sure it doesn't work out, leaving a family game of Monopoly when he doesn't get his way and then calling the cops on Dad. Meanwhile, Joe's best friend Patrick (Gabriel Basso) is just annoyed and trapped by his lame, overbearing parents (Megan Mullally, Marc Evan Jackson), who greet him with a wet washcloth to put around his neck after school and won't let him go to a friend's house without taking some vegetable soup. Both high school freshmen want an escape, so when Joe and a weird hanger-on named Biaggio (Moises Arias) scout the woods one night, Patrick is convinced to build a clubhouse from scratch and live on the land, where they can make their own rules. They "hunt" their food from a Boston Market dumpster. They bang sticks on a long pipe like Stomp percussionists. They even grow facial hair. After weeks go by, the boys initially returning home for home goods and supplies, neither the parents nor the cops (Mary-Lynn Rajskub, Thomas Middleditch) can find them, even though they're not that far from the Ohio suburbs.
"The Kings of Summer" gets off to a rather uneven start, feeling half-authentic and half-Quirky McQuirkerson. Joe and Patrick are tough to warm up to, unlike the kids in "The Perks of Being a Wallflower," "Mud" and "The Way Way Back," and the adults begin as either jerks or morons. Then the film redeems itself and sneaks up on you with an unexpected melancholy and an underlying sweetness. While director Vogt-Roberts and writer Chris Galletta indulge a little too much in quirk at first, they have their own off-kilter style (cleverly silly dream/fantasy interludes included) and wisely give the film a timeless feel (the characters don't take their cell phones to the woods).
Newcomer Robinson is quite good as Joe, especially when he grows a light mustache, experiences his first heartbreak, and starts smoking stogies. He shares such a comfortably real chemistry with co-star Basso that we grow to care about them as friends. As for the rail-thin, bug-eyed Biaggio, he's an oddball creation that would feel more at home in "Napoleon Dynamite" and a half-formed character with a non-sequitur shtick. He creates a ransom note, carries a machete around, and says that he doesn't see himself as having a gender, but Biaggio is played with total commitment by Arias. As widower Frank, Offerman is hilariously off-putting and then admirably underplays his touching moments with Robinson. The always-welcome Megan Mullally (of course, Offerman's real-life wife) is amusingly clueless and meddling as Patrick's mother who, at dinner, tells her son, "We watched a very good movie ["Hancock"] on the cable last night" with "Will Prince." Also, Alison Brie makes her brief moments count as Joe's older sister, who made the smart choice of moving out of the house but sticks up for her brother when she's home, and Erin Moriarty, who could be Alison Lohman's younger double, does nice work as Kelly, Joe's friend and crush who might just come between his friendship with Patrick.
Like a film that celebrates rebellion and unsupervised youth should, this one has a memorable (and unusual) soundtrack, with Ryan Miller's evocative score mixing samplings from video games and featuring thematically perfect tracks like MGMT's psychedelically poppy "The Youth" and Douglas James & Kevin Writer's hip-hoppy "How I Rise." Entitled "Toy's House" at Sundance, this little film probably owes a debt or two to "Stand by Me," but in the main, it's just wonderfully weird, funny, and resonant. "The Kings of Summer" came out in a year with plenty of coming-of-age film competition, and while this isn't some classic, it's likable and has its little charms.